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“Sweetly Thrilling Symphonies”: Highlights from Black Authors, 1556-1922

Posted on 05/10/2016

The April release of Black Authors, 1556-1922: Imprints from the Library Company of Philadelphia includes two late 19th-century collections of biographical sketches, one of African American musicians and a second including a wide range of influential African Americans. Also found in the current release is a history of African American troops in the Civil War. 

Music and Some Highly Musical People (1878) 

By James Monroe Trotter 

In 1842, James Monroe Trotter was born into slavery in Mississippi. Freed by their owner, he and his two sisters and mother, Letitia, moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Trotter could grow up in freedom. Prior to the Civil War, Trotter taught in Ohio and met Virginia Isaacs, his future wife. During the war, he served, and was promoted quickly, in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. After the war, he worked in the Post Office Department in Boston and as Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D.C. 

Trotter begins this volume by asking, what is music? And then offers this elegant answer:  

Quite easy is it to answer after the manner of the dictionaries, and say, “Music is (1) a number of sounds following each other in a natural, pleasing manner; (2) the science of harmonious sounds; and (3) the art of so combining them as to please the ear.” These are, however, only brief, cold, and arbitrary definitions: music is far more than as thus defined. Indeed, to go no further in the description of this really sublime manifestation of the beautiful would be to very inadequately express its manifold meanings, its helpful, delightful uses. And yet the impressions made upon the mind and the depth of feeling awakened in the heart by music are such as to render only a partial (a far from satisfying one) description of the same possible, even to those most skillful and eloquent in the use of language; for in fact, ordinary language, after exhausting all of its many resources in portraying the mind’s conceptions, in depicting the heart’s finer, deeper feelings, reveals, after all, its poverty, when sought to describe effects so entrancing, and emotions so deep-reaching, as those produced by music. No: the latter must be heard, it must be felt, its sweetly thrilling symphonies must touch the heart and fill the senses, in order that it may be, in its fulness [sic], appreciated; for then it is that music is expressed in a language of most subtle power,—a language all its own and universal, bearing with it ever an exquisitely touching pathos and sweetness that all mankind may feel. 

Explaining his focus on African American artists, Trotter “earnestly disavows all motives of a distinctively clannish nature.” He continues: 

But the haze of complexional prejudice has so much obscured the vision of many persons, that they cannot see (at least, there are many who affect not to see) that musical faculties, and power for their artistic development, are not in the exclusive possession of the fairer-skinned race…

 Among the volume's many portraits are these of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Henry F. Williams, Thomas J. Bowers, Nellie E. Brown and Samuel W. Jamieson.





Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887) 

By Rev. William J. Simmons 

William J. Simmons, not to be confused with William Joseph Simmons the founder of the second Ku Klux Klan, was born in bondage in Charleston, South Carolina. While still a child, Simmons, his mother, and two sisters escaped to Philadelphia before settling in Bordentown, New Jersey. Simmons served in the Union Army during the Civil War, after which he worked for a dentist, attended college, and, in 1873, graduated from Howard University.  

Simmons, while employed at Howard University, developed the school’s teacher training programs and in 1879 became the second president of Simmons College of Kentucky which was named for him in 1918. In addition to working as a journalist, writer, and educator, he served as president of the American National Baptist Convention and president of the Colored Press Association.  

He begins Men of Mark with this motivational discourse: 

Herein will be found many who had severe trials in making their way through schools of different grades. It is a suitable book…to be put into the hands of intelligent, aspiring young people everywhere, that they might see the means and manners of men’s elevation, and by this be led to undertake the task of going through high schools and colleges. If the persons herein mentioned could rise to the exalted stations which they have and do now hold, what is there to prevent any young man or woman from achieving greatness? Many, yea, nearly all these came from the loins of slave fathers, and were the babes of women in bondage, and themselves felt that the leaden hand of slavery on their own bodies; but whether slaves or not, they suffered with their brethren because of color. That ‘sum of human villainies’ did not crush out the life and manhood of the race. I wish the book to show to the world—to our oppressors and even our friends—that the Negro race is still alive, and must possess more intellectual vigor than any other section of the human family, or else how could they be crushed as slaves in all these years since 1620, and yet to-day stand side by side with the best blood in America, in white institutions, grappling with abstruse problems in Euclid and difficult classics, and master them? Was ever such a thing seen in another people? Whence these lawyers, doctors, authors, editors, divines, lectures, linguists, scientists, college presidents and such, in one quarter of a century?

 The illustrations include these of W.B. Derrick, Granville T. Woods, William Still, J.E. Jones, Preston Taylor, R.T. Greener, James Poindexter and many others:









A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion (1888) 

By George Washington Williams 

George Washington Williams was born in 1849 in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. At the age of 14 and under an assumed name, Williams enlisted in the Union Army and fought during the final battles of the Civil War. After the war, Williams enrolled at Newton Theological Institution and in 1874 became the first African American to graduate from Newton. 

Williams went on to study law under the father of President Taft, become the first African American elected to the Ohio State Legislature, and was appointed “Minister Resident and Consul General” to Haiti by President Arthur. He also wrote two groundbreaking histories; History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 and A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion. Introducing the latter, Williams writes of the difficulty in recording recent history: 

In writing of the remote past, the historian has the benefit of the sifting and winnowing to which time subjects historical data; but in writing of events within living memory it requires both fortitude and skill to resist the insidious influence of interested friends and actors, to separate error from truth with an even and steady hand, to master the sources of historical information—to know where the material is, to collect and classify it, although scattered through an almost endless maze of books, newspapers, diaries, pamphlets, etc.—and to avoid partisan feeling and maintain a spirit of judicial candor. How far I have succeeded is left to the considerate judgment of the reader. 

For more information about Black Authors, 1556-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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